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General Chemistry students turn laboratory into inquiry

December 19, 2013

This is not the chemistry lab that you dreaded as an undergraduate. Here, Dr. Roland Stout turned loose the imaginations of his general chemistry class in an exciting example of active learning.

“For several semesters I have taught a General Chemistry (I) Laboratory based on the inquiry method,” Dr. Stout said.  “With this method, students design experiments to answer their own questions.”

Still smiling after their presentation, Amanda Taylor, left, and LaGwen Bennett show off the tube they used to gather exhaled CO2, which they measured and compared.

Dr. Stout handed out carbon dioxide and oxygen detectors among other lab equipment to teams of students who took it and ran. They reported back to class, PowerPoints in hand, on November 7 to report their findings.

Some asked questions that answered personal questions. Amanda Taylor asked: does my sibling’s asthma cause him to exhale less CO2 than my friend who is a pack-a-day smoker.

Employing the scientific method, Taylor and her partner, LaGwen Bennett, hypothesized that a non-smoker would exhale the most carbon dioxide and the asthma sufferer the least. Their findings did not confirm their hypothesis. But that part of Dr. Stout’s lesson plan.

“These are mostly freshmen, and this may be the first time they have designed and carried out an experiment,” he said. “I let them make mistakes and then learn from them.”

For Dr. Stout, there was also amazing science on display. James Hunt, Ashley Van Meter and William Martinez measured the carbon dioxide produced by a decomposing mouse inside a biochamber.

“It would have been a better experiment if we could have controlled the temperature from day to night,” Hunt said.

Dr. Stout had many questions and suggestions for the trio, but he was excited by their idea. “That was the most interesting experiment I have seen in this lab,” he said. “They had some really good ideas about how they could improve on the experiment.”

Dr. Roland Stout listens to his students present their findings to the class.Another experiment checked for CO2 production in three soil samples. Yet another group replicated (unknowingly) one of the most famous experiments in the history of science.

Brandon George, Samantha Smith and Samara Allen timed how long it took for a candle to extinguish itself in an airtight chamber. Then, they varied the height of the candle inside the jar.

It seems simple, but this was revolutionary in the 19th century, Dr. Stout said. “This is not trivial stuff,” he said. “It was part of a standing room only series of lectures Michael Faraday performed at the Royal Institution in London in 1860.”

“This is scientific inquiry at its best, active learning that goes beyond what we normally do in the lab,” Dr. Stout said. “They did something innovative and learned from it. That tells me the lesson succeeded.”

And that is what makes General Chemistry meaningful to students.